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Valleyways

transfiguration182 Corinthians 4: 1-7
Mark 9: 2-10
Introduction to the reading
Today is Transfiguration Sunday on the church calendar, the Sunday before the beginning of Lent. The story is always the same, but each year from a different one of the Gospels. Today we have heard from the Gospel of Mark. With the disciples Peter, James and John, we shared a vision of Jesus as utterly divine… and then solidly human.

Our second reading is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. His sometimes testy interaction with the church in Corinth nevertheless helped to give both form and substance to Paul’s whole theology. In this passage, Paul proclaims his own understanding of the divine Jesus. And then, he too, puts humanity in its mundane place.

Sermon
Thomas Jay Oord, who teaches theology at Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho, wrote a piece in Christian Century for Transfiguration Sunday.

I spent a night last July at the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. Whitney is accessible without technical climbing [gear] and ropes. But it’s a grueling hike. I originally planned to sleep at the mountain’s base and make an early morning ascent [but] I ended up arriving at Whitney [in] midafternoon. I opted to go ahead with the hike instead of waiting. The possibility of photographing both a sunset and a sunrise from the mountain’s apex was too alluring.

It was a glorious sunset … [and] the sunrise, like the sunset, was phenomenal.

Getting to the glory of a mountaintop, however, takes a toll on the body. Oxygen-starved lungs, screaming muscles, aching feet, sweat-drenched skin, mental challenge.
But the summit, Oord declares, is worth the ordeal. “At the summit we stand above all else, looking back from where we’ve come. At the top our confidence runs high.” Mountains are places of unique high altitude light, of exhilaration, novel perspective, renewal, encouragement. (Oord 17)

Remember this about mountaintop experiences.

Earlier you heard Mark’s description of the dramatic scene on a mountaintop. Jesus had called Peter, James and John and nine others to be his disciples, his close followers and students. On this particular day he takes these three up to the top of a high mountain to pray with him. Surely he knew what was about to happen: a mountain place of prayer is almost code for ‘divine revelation.’ And before their very eyes, it does. Jesus becomes somebody else; the Bible says that he was ‘transfigured.’ His full divinity becomes clear as he converses with Moses and Elijah, two of the old patriarchs of Israel – Moses, the law and Elijah, the prophet; two who saw God face to face. The cloud of God’s presence overshadows them all. God speaks: “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him.”

Then, just as suddenly, the presence is gone, Moses and Elijah are gone, the divine Jesus is gone and only Jesus the man remains. God knows that a mountaintop experience cannot be sustained. Peter, James and John could not build permanent shelters for the three holy men. The disciples had to come down. They had to go about their business again, following Jesus the man as he went about healing, teaching, praying, preaching, forgiving – being the example of living life as God meant us to live.

But they will never see Jesus in the same way and will never see themselves in the same way either. Their ordinary lives will be filled with a remembrance of the holy.

In the second reading, Paul proclaims his own understanding of the divine Jesus. In a way, he is translating the meaning of the transfiguration for the congregation in Corinth. He sums up his confession of faith in verse 6:

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”
who has shone in our hearts
to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God
in the face of Jesus Christ.

Much of this whole passage – and indeed, of Paul’s letters in general – is a defense of his ministry over against his opponents, detractors, and unbelievers. Ever since his conversion experience on the Damascus road, Paul has not known Jesus in the same way as he had, a Pharisee of the highest order and persecutor of Christians. Now he sees himself in a totally different way also, because his ordinary life is filled with a remembrance of the holy.
For we do not proclaim ourselves [he writes]; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.

One of my favorite Scripture passages comes at the end of the reading for today:

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear
that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

We are all like clay jars – made of the physical elements of the earth, porous, fragile, breakable, often cracked. But God is at work within each one of us; there is a holiness within each one of us. We are spiritual beings in human bodies. We are vessels for God’s compassion, forgiveness, justice, peace, joy and love.

Last Saturday’s Consistory retreat was a training session elders and deacons for both those who were new to the positions and those who have been serving for a while. The description of persons who have answered the call, or invitation, to be on Consistory is the same for both offices, as written in the Book of Church Order:

“The office of elder [and deacon] is one of servanthood and service representing Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit. In the local church elders [and deacons] are chosen members of spiritual discernment [commitment], exemplary life, charitable [compassionate] spirit and wisdom [sound judgment] grounded in God’s Word.”

Some of your elders and deacons weren’t sure about leading an “exemplary” lives. The term speaks of perfection; no one qualifies. But as we talked, I think we came to the realization that in our living, and in service to the church, we are like the clay jars. God’s Holy Spirit is visible through us; we do serve as examples of how that can be so for anyone.

I began by relating stories of mountaintop experiences, of being in the very presence of the holy. That kind of experience is not sustainable in itself. We cannot stay on the high place; we cannot always walk on the high road. We live in the valleys; we walk the valley ways – ordinary, boring, uneventful; challenging, depressing, terrifying.

And this week, as Lent begins, we will intentionally make the walk through the valley. I pray that you would use this quiet time – or at least some time of it, a little each day – to slow down and reflect, listen for the holy voice, watch for the holy light, to pray.

And then, I pray, you will know what the psalmist held to be true: Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me… For we remember what we knew on the mountain; the holy comes with us. God continues to be at work within us, in our hearts. And if we haven’t had a mountaintop experience ourselves, we know that others have, and they are our examples.

And now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than anything we can ask or imagine, to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Oord, Thomas Jay. “Reflections on the lectionary.” Christian Century 17 Jan. 2018: 17.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
February 11, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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